Event Coverage: #Celebrating Dissent - A Conversation on Women's Dissent
"Heretics, infidels, renegades - Welcome to Amsterdam!" - Mayor of Amsterdam, Femke Halsema.
Starting at bright and early at 10am, I covered day two of the Freedom Festival held in Amsterdam at the De Balie centre, from the comforts of my home via the Livestream link made accessible via the De Balie website. The event would not have been possible without the organisation of Maryam Namazie, President of the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain. Her bravery to speak out and criticise the ideology that is Islam and stand against communities and states which seek to silence, ostracise and kill us via vigilante attacks, in the name of so-called honour and state sanction violence in the twelve states that will have us murdered. Through the partnership with De Balie, the Freedom Festival is born, with the particular day, I spent covering focusing on women's dissent because throughout history women have been systematically oppressed into silence. But this very day, Saturday 31st August 2019, showcased a range of incredibly powerful, intelligent and artistic women from the secular world who refuse to be quiet.
The day opened at 10am ending with the last panel at 8pm, it was a long day of discussion, art and music, but one that did not feel long at all. The day began with music from Australian singer-songwriter Shelley Segal, whose human rights activism is demonstrated through music. The event features musicians, dancers, filmmakers and comedians, showing the world that like religion, which has its own arts, secularism does too. It shows the talent these activists have and really showcases the multifaceted nature of activism and that secularism is not just limited to the political, but there is a place for them in the arts.
Opening speeches from Taslima Nasreen, Inna Schevchenko and Maryam Namazie, herself. This was the first time I had been introduced to the work and stories of Taslima and Inna, for which I will give a brief description into their work, as each woman is worthy of her own post. Taslima is a writer, physician and secular humanist and human rights activist. She is known for her writings on women's oppression via the medium of poetry. Her work has led to her exile and fundamentalists issuing fatwa's calling for her death. Inna Schevchenko is an activist and feminist campaigner and leader of the international women's movement FEMEN, which are known for topless protests and campaigns against patriarchy, dictatorship and religion.
Maryam's speech discusses the victim-blaming, shunning and ostracisation of free thinkers from minority backgrounds, which happens too often highlighting the importance of celebrating dissenters. Taslima tells us her story and recites a poem for us all, and finally, Inna discusses how religion is the last cultural barrier to gender equality.
"Obedient women rarely make history. It is us disobedient women, the ex-Muslims, blasphemers, apostates and heretics that aim to make history." - Maryam Namazie.
"I believe that no country can be civilised without scrutinising its dogmatic practices." - Taslima Nasreen.
"As a matter of fact, I believe that religion is the last cultural barrier to gender equality. And we need to go beyond it." - Inna Schevchenko.
The first panel of the day entitled Touching the Holy Subject focusing on secularism, apostasy and blasphemy in relation to the law. Moderator Bahram Sadeghi introduces the topic and goes through the definition of blasphemy and the complexities of apostasy death sentences listing the twelve countries in which leaving the state religion of Islam carries the death penalty.
Afghanistan, Iran, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritania, Nigeria, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, United Arab Emirates and Yemen.
Bahram makes the important point that religion and blasphemy, in particular, is not dinner table conversation. He uses the analogy of the birthday party, he says you don't talk about topics such as income and then brings in religion and blasphemy. They are topics that are not seen as palatable to the public sphere. "Kafir in the house!" Bahram exclaims, which gains laughter from both myself and the crowd. He asks the crowd to raise their hands as to who is irreligious, but also asks if there are any religious people in attendance, and there is!
Next, Bahram invites Pakistani lawyer Saif Ul Malook, the defence lawyer of Asia Bibi, to the stage to speak. When I heard he was speaking at the event I was beyond excited to hear what he had to say because the story of Asia Bibi was one of my motivations and inspirations into pursuing a career in journalism, and was in fact, the first story I wrote about on my blog. Saif describes how entrenched blasphemy law is in the Pakistani legal system. Blasphemy is codified into the penal code of Pakistan, it states that anyone who says anything disrespectful about the Muslim Prophet Muhammad shall be treated as blasphemous, and carries the highest punishment of all, death. The second part of the law states that anyone who defiled the holy book, the Quran, tear it etc will face life imprisonment.
Saif tells us the story of Asia Bibi, a woman who was sentenced to death for alleged blasphemy against the Islamic prophet. He describes how the personal religious beliefs of the police, the investigators, the lawyers and the judges infiltrated the matters of the state. Saif advocates for a strict separation between the two. Saif outlines the risks of speaking out and taking on cases like this. The public threatened judges and lawyers that if they overturned the verdict they will kill them.
When asked why do you put your life at risk?
Saif answers "Somebody has to come forward to help those nobody is helping . . . why not die doing something good?"
After Saif's speech, panellists Nadia El Fani, Sarah Haider and Rishvin Ismath are invited up to the stage. Nadia is a Tunisian filmmaker who made a film about the Ramadan protests and the Tunisian revolution, entitled Neither Allah nor Master. There is no law which says people must fast during Ramadan, but social pressures from the Muslim community means that society does not accept those that refuse to fast. The film featured both young and old defying the religious pressures in the fight for the separation of religion and state. Soon after the film's screening, she had a campaign against her from Islamists calling for her death.
Rishvin is the first Ex-Muslim to go public in Sri Lanka and has recently faced a near-death experience when ISIS attempted to kill him months before the Easter Sunday suicide attack.
Sarah is an American Ex-Muslim who left Islam at sixteen years old and set-up the Ex-Muslims of North America (EXMNA). In terms of reactions to her apostasy, she considers herself to be privileged, she did not have the threat of abuse or disowning, but that does not mean that familial relationships were not difficult. She outlines the obvious fears her parents have and many Muslim parents do have about their children leaving Islam - the fear of eternal damnation. But, there were also fears for how her community would view her, her prospects of marriage and now, fears for her life because of her activism. As of current her mother still believes, but her father has left Islam and Sarah has hope for the effect people can have on their familial relations. Her activism through her organisation includes documentary series, campus tours and research into Ex-Muslims and the nature of apostasy. This is something I really am hopeful of seeing, to see academic research into Ex-Muslims and apostasy, to actually see how many of us there are.
Before the Q+A session, we receive a performance from Waleed Wain, but most of you will know him as Veedu Vidz. He performs his parody song 'Music is Haraam,' featuring the persona of Dawah Man and the impression of Zakir Naik. I was already well-acquainted with the song from Veedu's channel (video will be linked at the end), and could not help but find myself laughing along with the Zakir Naik and bopping along to the catchy chorus. These interludes of music, comedy and art really give the event something more. It creates a platform for dissenters which is more than just the politics and religion and showcases we are more than that, we are artists and creators!
"Music is haram everybody knows, it penetrates your body from your head to your toes." - Veedu Vidz.
Finally, questions are asked to the panel and they discuss their opinions on joking and satirising religion. Sarah raises the really interesting point that humour is natural, the response to laugh is natural, you cannot control it. With good humour you really feel it, and satire brings out the uncomfortable truth. Nadia emphasises the irony behind the title of her film and says that humour can pass a lot of things, but now people do not understand humour and everything is serious. This made me think of the age of political correctness we are living in. Finally, Rishvin makes the point the Muhammad was afraid of poetry and the arts, and thus why it is said the Quran is a poem in Arabic. Most arts are prohibited in Islam, perhaps Muhmmad was aware of the power the arts have in liberation and free-thinking, who knows?
The next panel, Comedy, The Sacred and Islamophobia is led by comedian Shabana Rehman, Ex-Muslims Armin Navabi and Ali Rizvi. Armin is the founder of the Atheist Republic and author of Why There is No God. Ali is the author of The Atheist Muslim and co-hosts the podcast Secular Jihadists with Armin. Moderator Sherin Seyda introduces Shabana by playing a short film about her and the Shabana takes to the stage.
Shabana is a Norwegian comedian and activist, who stirred up controversy through three stunts which become central to this panels discussion. The Mullah lifting, flashing her bottom on stage and her 'burning' of the Quran. She talks about how she got into the comedy scene, for her there was no one that looked like her on the scene, so she took influence from the comedians available to her. She saw them making people laugh, so she did the same. But the reaction she received was not the same.
"not my action, it's your reaction." - Shabana Rehman.
She had been verbally attacked by Pakistani males because she spoke her truth and did comedy. A Pakistani politician retold her the story of the prostitute and the cat, for many Muslims and former Muslims, this is a story we have heard often. The politician said that because Shabana's heart belonged to animals she was forgiven. When asked why did she moon? She explains that she did not just because you can do that in Norway, but for something else. Shabana talks about the first time Norwegian and Pakistani cinema became one in a story about Norwegian boy falling love with a Pakistani girl in which he had to convert, circumcise and sign a contract that if he divorced her that her father had permission to kill him. And you know what happened, he did and their wedding was the happy ending. Aw cultural barriers are fixed now! And that was meant to be a comedy. She did not want to speak on it because of the pressure, but she said why is it so controversial that Pakistani women are marrying Norweigan boys and then she mooned on stage. She did not think it would be dangerous because it is very common in Scandanavian films, she did not think it would lead to bullet holes. Here she refers to the attack on her sister's restaurant.
Shabana's next stunt, she shows us the video before discussing. In this clip, she is at a literature festival about dangerous books and no one would speak about the Quran apart from the extreme right-wing, which said the Quran should be burnt. How did Shabana handle this, how would a comedian handle this?
How to say what you want without getting your head cut off? - By burning the book it gets more power, so she lit the matches held the Quran and blew the matches out. She says we need not fear it being burnt. She did not give the right what they wanted, but she still touched the subject and yet still, the fanatics went crazy.
The panel takes questions, the three I will focus on are does ridicule bring society further and why? The role of comedy in criticising Islam and their thoughts on criticising Islam in the current climate of the far/alt-right inciting violence and how do we approach that now?
Does ridicule bring society further? In short, yes. Armin notes that when we insult religion we are not trying to make friends, we are trying to break barriers.
What is the role of comedy in criticising Islam? Ali says it is a very, very important aspect, but it more so is the way in which you speak. Storytelling is a powerful tool because that is what human beings relate to. There is strong emotion in art, religion is one big story if you really think about it. He notes the art in religion, that the call to prayer, the athaan is music essentially. Islam has calligraphy and breathtaking architecture.
How do you fill the gap as an atheist?
Ali notes having to unlearn homophobia and this was achieved in the process beyond the mind. The power was seen in watching the film Philidelphia (1993) and watching Ellen DeGeneres come out. Armin adds that we do not necessarily need to fill in the gap and that you can consume religious art without being religious. That I really do agree with, even as a Muslim and now as an atheist, I visit cathedrals and churches in Spanish cities and I admire and take in the architecture without having any religious connections. His Harry Potter analogy made me laugh and many others in the audience (thus, I could not understand when Armin said he did not think he was funny). Finally, Shabana ends the question with how she became an activist. For her, she did not start as one, religion had a problem with her and she had to push back for her survival. I think that's how many Ex-Muslims feel, to be public with your apostasy, but just simply stating "I am no longer Muslim," leads to backlash, criticism and threats.
"Islam is fun if you don't believe in it." - Armin Navabi.
Criticising Islam in the current climate of the far/alt-right inciting violence and how do we approach that now? Ali refers to Shabana's Quran 'burning' stunt, in that she did not want to give the far-right what they wanted. But, points out that Islam is a far-right ideology. Lots of Ex-Muslims and atheists are not given platforms, but the far-right does. That's why we need to create our own, I feel so strongly about that. As an agnostic atheist and Ex-Muslim, there is not very many platforms for me to speak out on, events like this are the way forward. But, large scale mainstream platforms are yet to be seen. Ali leaned politically to left and aims to re-educate and reach left-liberals. Finally, Armin says it is better to be offended than discriminated against he tells Muslims. In fact, Ex-Muslims should be their favourite anti-Islam people because we will stand on your side when people challenge your rights.
The event takes a pause for a remembrance organised by Maryam Namazie to remember those free thinkers who have been persecuted and killed in their line of work. A group of speakers from the event will demonstrate by holding red balloons paying tribute to them. The balloons carried the names of 160 people (a small cross-section of those victims of religiously motivated violence). One of those to be remembered is Asad Shah, a shopkeeper from Glasgow and follower of Ahmadi Islam. He was fatally stabbed outside of his shop in 2016 by the Sunni Muslim, Tanveer Ahmed, who stated that Shah had offended Islam by claiming to be the prophet in a YouTube video. I had tweeted out the events program and this tweet telling Asad's story was met by a response from one user saying why are non-believers remembering him, and that it should be left as an issue for theists to deal with. First of all, it was a violent attack amongst someone with a differing opinion on Islam, the threat that Ahmadi followers of Islam are not too dissimilar to Ex-Muslims. Moreover, other sects of Islam, like Sunni Muslims, tend not to speak out in defence and remember people like Asad because to them Asad is not a 'real' Muslim and will view his beliefs as heretical. Finally, I will speak up for injustices I am aware of and when I can.
The penultimate panel, Separation of Religion and State is focused on why secularism is an important precondition for the minimum rights of women, LGBT+, Ex-Muslims and minorities. The panel is moderated by Bercan Gunel and includes Afsana Lachaux, lawyer Homa Arjomand, CEMB spokesperson Sadia Hameed, activist Elzbieta Podlesna and Annie Laurie Gaylor the co-founder of Freedom from Religion Foundation Annie Laurie Gaylor.
Bercan introduces the topic of the panel and then invites Afsana Lachaux up to speak and share her story. Afsana has been fighting to regain custody of her son and the complexities around her cases are astonishing. She has been in a multijurisdictional legal battler with the Dubai courts who initially took her son away from her and UK and French courts. Afsana was accused of kidnapping her own child, at this point her son was already removed from her custody. Her charge was that she was an unfit mother. It was due to a public campaign that stopped her from serving any jail time.
Afsana tells the panel to listen carefully to the details. Her son was born in Dubai to a French Catholic man, as their marriage began to break down she wished to return to the UK. Her French Catholic husband took her to an Islamic court in the UAE and divorced her. He manipulated the law and state machinery to his advantage and Afsana was thrown in a UAE prison cell and assaulted by police officers in a country that was not her own. The court said she was an apostate and caused her sons eczema and thus, making her an unfit mother. With help from her family via a western media campaign emphasising that she was British publicly meant she was returned home. That is when her fight began.
Afsana started a campaign for justice with help from the feminist movement and women of colour, she began to fight her case in France and the UK. She went to the UK courts to argue her case that because she was a British citizen and her marriage took place in London the Sharia ruling should be overturned on the basis of human rights. The UK judge she was met with said Afsana was demonising UAE law and the British judge said that UAE Sharia law was the same as UK law. A legal system that does not treat men and women as equals. The SAME case was tried in the French Supreme Court, and they overturned the UAE ruling stating that they would not endorse Islamic Sharia law because in France men and women are equals before the law. Sadly, British courts ignored the French ruling and Afsana will be entering the ninth year of her fight in 2020.
Next, Homa Arjomand and Sadia Hameed are invited up to speak. Homa founded the campaign against the Sharia court in Canada. In 1981, the law decided to have faith-based arbitration meaning that anyone from any faith can go to their own faith court (divorce, custody etc.), but do not have to go to a Canadian court. Canadians were not aware of this, one of Homa's clients came from Pakistan and her husband took her to Sharia court in Canada. Through the international women's rights movement, she only needed 100 spokespersons, but she had 1000s speaking up against faith-based arbitration and ran international rallies in front of the Candian embassy. In Iran, 150 incredibly brave women when in front of the Canadian embassy in Iran and say no to Sharia law in Canada.
Sadia begins talking about how she has never seen true secularism in practice and tells us how her view of secularism has been viewed as extreme. She wishes not to see any religion in the state, neither does she like religious symbols in the public place. As she puts it very well, secularism levels the playing field because when you choose a religion you don't just choose a religion, you have to choose a sect, and through that, you can make other sect's feel inferior. Sadia then goes on to say religion does not give women's rights, to which I found myself saying preach Sadia! She argues that the law needs to be universal and protect us all in the same way. Their introductions end with Homa stating that we all have to be the watchdog and stop these bills, like the Islamophobia bill that has been proposed to Manchester City Council, to make noise and examine and criticises these bills before they become law and become much harder to change.
For the final introductions, Elzbieta Podlesna and Annie Laurie Gaylor are invited to tell us about their work. Elzbieta is a Polish activist fighting for the separation between church and state in her country, which has moved from communism to Christianity. She faces two years imprisonment in Poland for standing up for LGBT rights for a protest which involved painting rainbows over the Virgin Mary and laid them out in the streets in solidarity with members of the LGBT community.
Annie Laurie Gaylor co-founded the Freedom From Religion Foundation with her mother in the United States. Annie warns us that Poland is a cautionary tale for the US in terms of abortion rights highlight the recent appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court and the threat he poses to Roe v Wade. I wrote a post about this a while ago, which I will link at the bottom for you so you can learn more about the situation in the US.
In the question and answer session, all of the women highlight the importance of secularism in the fight for equal rights. They raise concerns around secular education as well as secular law. Afsana raises the issue of soft power in the media industries and that we need to be more forensic when consuming our news, who owns the football teams we are supporting and critically approach governing bodies like the United Nations, who have places like Saudi Arabia on a human rights agenda. Sadia emphasises we do not want special rights, we want equal rights across the board, Elzbieta warns us that it is a collective danger that we are all facing and finally, Homa ends by saying that religion should be a private matter of the individual and not in a position of power in the state.
In the final panel of the day Women Against Gods? Speakers discuss the theoretical framework of oppression and the history of women's bodies. This panel analyses the power dynamics between men and women in religious texts, dialogues and history. The speakers included clinical psychologist Ibtissame Betty Lachga, Ex-Muslim activist Rana Ahmad, journalist Gita Saghal, professor and lesbian-feminist activist Maaike Meijer and writer Mineke Schipper.
Ibtissame is a clinical psychologist who specialises in the violence against women and sexual violence and she initiated the first LGBT movement in Morocco. She highlights the problems women have as activists, and her fight to break down taboos around reproduction and sexual education in Morocco.
Rana Ahmad is an Ex-Muslim activist and women's rights campaigner from Saudi Arabia. After leaving Islam she was forced to go to Mecca in 2014, Rana bravely took a photo as an atheist in one of the most dangerous places to be one. She had to make the decision to leave in fear for her life so that she could live as a free woman without having to lie about who she was and live her truth. She talks about the freedoms she has felt leaving Saudi Arabia, the one which had the biggest impact was being able to walk in the street without wearing the imposed hijab and feel the sun on her skin. She turned her experience into a positive by setting up an organisation which helps atheist refugees. It had been four years since her escape and she has written a book in that time, in which she notes that if it were to be translated into Arabic it would be dangerous. Rana says the world needs to stop caring about Saudi money and care about human rights.
My final thoughts on this event are that it was one extensive learning experience in which I could hear my voice through these incredibly intelligent and fearless women. I heard people I have been following for a longtime speak on such important issues and I have been introduced to so many more, who have really opened my eyes on the global scale in the fight for secularism and human rights. The memorable event organised by Maryam Namazie and the De Balie team has given so many Ex-Muslims a platform to speak, discuss and perform in ways never seen before. She is an inspiration for young secularists and Ex-Muslims like myself. The speakers at this event have inspired myself and other young Ex-Muslims and secularists from a variety of backgrounds to come together in creating a space for a new generation of activists, something which I cannot wait to share with you soon.
Thank you for reading!
Link to De Balie website with all the videos from the Freedom Festival - https://debalie.nl/verdieping/#de_balie_tv
Link to Veedu Vidz 'Music is Haraam' - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QkweGrNcQsw
Link to the blog post on Asia Bibi - https://www.theamberjournals.co.uk/2019/01/1-case-of-asia-bibi.html
Link to the blog post on US Abortion law - https://www.theamberjournals.co.uk/2019/06/new-abortion-bills-are-direct-threat-to.html